29 May 2009

Family Plot (1976)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 120 mins.

Many assumed Alfred Hitchcock would end his career with Frenzy, his 1972 thriller about a necktie strangler in the vein of Jack the Ripper. There was a certain beautiful symmetry to it: his career launched widely in 1927 with The Lodger, a film also concerning a mysterious killer threatening London. And Frenzy, although I have my own personal reservations about it, was certainly seen as closer to the patented Hitchcock aesthetic than Torn Curtain and Topaz before it. But reportedly he consistently displeased at retirement questions while on his publicity tour for Frenzy. "What would I do?" he told one journalist. "Sit in the corner and read a book?"

His next film, however, did come from a book. Victor Canning's The Rainbird Pattern followed a faux clairvoyant and her boyfriend as they search for the missing heir to a rich old woman and cross paths with a vicious kidnapper and his wife. Hitchcock and North by Northwest scribe Ernest Lehman adapted the novel into a script they called "Deceit" but which would eventually become Family Plot — a Hitchcockian film title if there ever were one. The con artist clairvoyant and her boyfriend are played by Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern, both adequate. Karen Black and William Devane, however, are sort of deliciously evil; their chemistry onscreen is strengthened by the hesitation in Black's character, Fran, and the growing menace of Devane's character, Arthur.

Like all of the director's films post-Marnie, Family Plot doesn't quite work as a whole. Most surprising is the fact that the direction feels so strangely anonymous, even more than the failure that was Topaz, and for once it can't be chalked up to the director's apathy. There is little by way of technical sophistication in the film, and most of the suspense and excitement occurs during bursts of quick editing. Whereas Hitchcock had always been a master of composition and the power of the image, Family Plot relies more on its, well, plot to grab the audience.

Lehman's script is far from his clever work on North by Northwest. The source text was much more maniacal than Hitchcock desired and he ordered Lehman to tone it down; in the novel, evil triumphs and the seemingly good characters die, and although Hitchcock loved exploring the darker side, it had never won in one of his films. The story's singular strength is the way it initially plays with audience allegiance in its first half; neither couple, the clairvoyant and her boyfriend or the kidnappers, can technically be considered good. There is only less bad (attempting to swindle $10,000 from an old woman by pretending to be a medium) and what turns out to be worse (kidnapping men and collecting jewels as a ransom). That motif isn't unfamiliar Hitchcock territory; doubling and contrasting is best exemplified in Strangers on a Train, and rooting for a less-than-ethical character has never been done better by anyone than Hitchcock with Psycho. But for a film that feels as if it's trying to belong in 1976, its soft duality feels too dated.

Moreover, the dialogue isn't as punchy and the humor certainly lacks energy. One of Family Plot's supposed banner moments for laughter, where a car's accelerator becomes lodged and the breaks are cut, feels like a pathetic rehash of Roger Thornhill's drunken escape from Vandamm's thugs. Toss in Barbara Harris kicking and screaming like a lunatic and the humor becomes more of a turn-off than anything else.

It is correct to say that Family Plot is lighter fare as far as Hitchcock is concerned. This is the sort of loose and carefree variety of comedy not seen since his work in the mid-1950s — i.e., The Trouble with Harry (although Plot lacks the black humor bite) and To Catch a Thief (although Plot lacks the glossy and gorgeous veneer of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly on the Riviera). But while it's lighter, it shouldn't be dismissed of its more sinister elements. Hitchcock was nearly 77 years old upon the release of Family Plot, and what once felt like a twisted pleasure in death and murder in his earlier works carries an eerie feeling of mortality in his later works. More a few scenes take place in a cemetery, yet somber they are not. In one scene, a young woman carving a headstone listens to pop rock music so loud she's told to turn it off by the offbeat caretaker.

Hitchcock planned a fifty-fourth film — The Short Night, a spy film based on a true story of a British double agent — and between 1976 and 1979, he and writer David Freeman worked extensively on the script. Once finished, however, Hitchcock knew he could never film it. Family Plot would be the final film in a career that spanned more than half a century and produced many irrefutable masterpieces in the form. In many ways it's a strange film to have at the end of the Hitchcock catalogue, save one important element. In the moment, after it appears that Barbara Harris's character has performed a genuine act of clairvoyance, she looks directly into the camera and winks. It was reportedly not planned, but Hitchcock kept it. In the context of the film, it is ridiculously cornball. But you have to think a part of Hitchcock delighted in the fact that the final moment in what would be his final film was a wink.

After all, hadn't he been essentially been doing that at us for fifty years?


FilmDr 30 May, 2009  

Congratulations, T.S. for concluding your excellent Hitchcock series! I hope that in the future you might consider writing further analyses of the major scenes of Hitch's canon.

I still wonder if there is more to say about why and how Hitchcock lost his edge in some of these later films. Perhaps he lost the balance between his obsessions and his artistic control?

T.S. 30 May, 2009  

Thanks, FilmDr! I'm only, what, 7 months late? Ha.

I'd love to devote some analysis to some of my favorite scenes in my favorite Hitchcock films. It's a rather daunting task because so many film theorists have done it nicely before me and I hardly consider myself much of a theorist. But I don't feel I've written sufficiently on a few of favorite Hitchcock films, so I'll definitely revisit. Perhaps we could get around to that joint series that's been mentioned before — assign a few people some films and all of us dive on in. I've got dibs on Rear Window.

Your point about Hitchcock slipping is well taken. I haven't been able to answer it to my own satisfaction, nor have I read anyone who can. I'm interested in the theory about losing control, both of his obsessions and his art, although that strikes me as only part of the equation. What makes it so fascinating to me is that the possibility of him losing control occurs around the same moment Truffaut begins his interviews (the early 1960s) and also around the same time Hollywood begins a fundamental shift away from the style of the 1950s and into the New Hollywood of the late 1960s. And also you can't discount that his reliable team from the 1950s — Herbert Coleman, Robert Burks, George Tomasini, Bernard Herrmann, and even his wife, Alma, who had become ill — was broken apart. It could just be too that the material wasn't there for him; his films toward the end (with the exception of Marnie and Frenzy, the better films post-Birds) exhibit the same sense of apathy that haunted his earlier, non-Hitchcockian films in Britain and Hollywood. The curious aspect of auteur is that it makes him such a transparent director but also such an enigma, and those who have written extensively about Hitchcock - at least who I've read - don't seem to settle on any solid answer either.

Anonymous,  07 November, 2009  

Your Hitchcock reviews are quite enjoyable!....I haven't gotten around to reviewing too many myself but you have inspired me to take time for Hitch in my own blog (www.silverscreenstories.wordpress.com)

keep up the good work!

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